Who’s on First?

Moneyball (September 23, 2011)     4.5/5

Directed by Bennett Miller (Columbia Pictures)

If “it’s just a game,” then why does life, something we value far more than anything else, so strongly resemble one?  It has rules (the laws of physics, plus a few social norms), players (us, obviously), and of course, winning and losing.  Moneyball, based on the book by Michael Lewis, is a film about baseball, a game that obeys its own rules by using high payroll to secure the best players, and therefore, get wins.  But it is also a film about the act of living; portrayed through a man who breaks the rules to win on the field, and soon realizes that if he hopes to be happy on the outside, he must do something similar.  It is certainly an intriguing premise, one that clinches Moneyball a spot among the greatest modern “sports” films.  Yes, quotation marks are necessary, considering we are all fully aware that it’s never just about playing ball.  All the more reason to praise how Moneyball, while treading familiar territory, still flies by the cliches like a warm, summer breeze.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics who in the 2002 season (following the team’s World Series loss against the Yankees), desperately needs to fill the void of free agents Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen.  He soon meets a young Yale graduate with an economics degree, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who has an interesting perspective on the game.  According to Pete, Billy should be trying to fill the gap by matching the missing stars’ on-base percentage, meaning he should be trying to buy runs instead of players who seem intuitively right for the team, a technique that will utilize the limited budget of the A’s, while forming a team of misfits that is statistically “winning.”  Billy soon makes Brand the assistant GM, and for better or worse, the two begin to change the game; or rather, the business.  Billy and Pete soon receive resentment from the baseball community, fans, and manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as they attempt to do what no team has ever done.  Win the World Series on a shoestring budget.

The screenplay, written by David Fincher collaborators (and Oscar-winners) Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zailian (the upcoming Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) is loaded to the brim with clever, humorous, and insightful dialogue, executed superbly by director Bennett Miller (who directed Hoffman in Capote) into a strong story, that through its visceral, dramatically-humane action, is primarily a character study.  Brad Pitt is a true film star for a changing medium, giving two of the year’s best performances (the other being in The Tree of Life).  Billy Bean is a regretful man with hope for redemption, having been recruited by the major leagues at a young age (primarily for the substantial check), missing his college opportunity and ultimately becoming a bust at the plate.  He hopes that his new method and embrace of “moneyball” will help him open new paths in the lives of those who “play” for a living, as well as his own.  So as Billy suffers statistical loss, he fails to realize how he has revolutionized the game, and thus, obscures the beauty of what he has in the real world.  It is not until the aspects of baseball and the game of life collide that Billy ultimately discovers the man he truly wants to be.

The film has a bounty of these wonderful ideas, primarily executed with a subconscious undercurrent throughout scenes that is not common among most modern films.  Billy, fearing those ever-common baseball jynxes, does not attend his games, and tries his best (sometimes with little success) not to follow them as they occur.  During each game, we see Billy either relieving tension in the gym or driving around in his car, each scene cohesively blending to provide an alternate, characteristic storyline within the film.  Moneyball also uses traditional cinematic techniques (by longtime Christopher Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister) to technically personify Billy’s thoughts and feelings, including rack focusing and symbolic use of lighting, which become apparent as we see close-ups of Billy alone, contemplating the games he is involved in, and ultimately, how these contribute to his loneliness.  Luckily, Pete is there for him in the office, spreadsheets and equation-baring whiteboards intact.  Jonah Hill easily gives his best performance here, as an eager, smart young man who has cleaner humor than his Superbad counterpart, but is still able to use his wit and intelligence to start a revolution.  Hoffman is also terrific as the abrasive, contract-angry Art Howe, who was obviously not happy with his portrayal in the film.

In fact, like The Social Network, which Columbia also distributed, a lot in Moneyball isn’t true at all.  Hill’s character actually came onto the scene several years earlier, and is not accurately based on Billy’s real assistant.  Billy’s relationship with his daughter is also quite dramatized.  But in a film like Moneyball, true-life realism couldn’t be less important.  A film with such strong story elements and characterizations displays much more about life than a story true to the “real thing” ever could.  If you want picture-perfect, see a documentary.  But nowadays, even the non-fiction genre uses fictitious and biased information to prove its point.  Luckily, that “point” is so strong in Moneyball, as well as the innovative, technical methods it uses to prove it (check out Christopher Tellefsen’s brilliant editing during those “computer stats” sequences).

So who cares if you’re a baseball fan?  This is not only a film about the power of belief, but also the games we play, how they affect us, and who we are because of them.  Even cinema is a game; and as exemplified through films like Moneyball, faith in your actions will result in enjoyment, love of that same game, and ultimately, the knowledge that winning ideas will somehow pay off.  It did for both Billy and the filmmakers, a seemingly dual effort between baseball and cinema. In both cases, the audience is lucky. Even luckier are the men and women who can now sit back and enjoy what they have created, until passion once again compels them to inject inspiration into our world. No wonder sports found the movies.

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